By Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq.

The greatest tractate in the Talmud in terms of pagination, Bava Batra, at “176” pages—actually, 175, starting at page 2) begins (on page 3) with a discussion centered on Herod the “Great,” which presents us with a variety of meaningful lessons for our times, if we dig (“excavate”?) deeply enough. (Of course, no builder’s buildings in antiquity require less excavation than Herod’s, whose buildings or their remains highlight the landscape of the classical sites in Israel to this day—the Western Wall, the structure above the Me’arat Hamachpela, Masada, other fortresses, and aqueducts.)

Although secular scholars claim that Herod was of nobility, the Talmud states that his origins were as a “semi-Jewish” slave in the House of the Hasmoneans, the family of the heroes of the war of Chanukah. One day, according to the Talmud, Herod, when still a slave, heard a bat kol—a Heavenly voice—saying “Any slave who rebels now will succeed.” Whereupon Herod duly rose up and killed “all his masters” (and, in fact, all the surviving Hasmoneans except for one young lady “he had his eyes on”). Query whether the only Heavenly “justification” for this insurrection could have been independently verified, but regardless (the Talmud apparently takes Herod at his word), one lesson this incident can teach us is that people should be good to their slaves (or, today, to their employees or fellow citizens).

Note: Until a few hundred years ago, slavery was ubiquitous, but the Jews treated their slaves better than most, and even better than themselves in some respects. Even now, some Arabs still have slaves in the traditional sense, do not necessarily treat them well, and if their treatment of the October 7 hostages is any indication, they do not necessarily treat their slaves as the Jews treated theirs, to put it mildly.

Ironically, an argument can be made by some (not necessarily by me, of course) that Herod could have satisfied the Heavenly voice in favor of launching an insurrection without killing a majority of his captors, let alone all of them, a la what happened in Washington, DC January 6th (although, to be technical, no members of Congress were even injured, let alone died, on January 6th; the person who died on January 6th was presumed to have been pro-Trump and the person who died the next day died of causes that were reputedly based at least in part on pre-existing conditions).

Herod, who had royal aspirations, was aware of the statement in the Bible that “one from among your brothers you shall set as king over you,” (Deuteronomy 17:15) but he was also made aware of the interpretation of the rabbis of his time (the Sanhedrin) that “he who is appointed as king must come from a Jewish family and cannot be an emancipated slave (let alone an insurrectionist slave) or a convert,” so he murdered all the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, but spared Bava Ben Buta (as cited in Bava Batra, at 3b) “in order to take counsel with him.” Too bad he didn’t take counsel with him before deciding to murder all the rabbis!

Herod may have been the greatest builder of all time (or certainly one of the greatest), but he certainly was not the greatest savior, saving the life of Ben Buta but then arranging for the gouging out of Ben Buta’s eyes (indirectly) to disqualify him from ever serving on a future Sanhedrin that could rule against Herod’s royal aspirations as did the rabbis he murdered. Again, he may have been the greatest builder, but he was not necessarily the greatest logical thinker.

Herod then decided to test the then-blinded Ben Buta, according to the Talmud—and you think some tests you have taken in your life made you nervous! Actually, Herod didn’t make the test-taker nervous, at least for this test, since Herod hid his identity from Ben Buta, which wasn’t that difficult to do since Ben Buta was blind by that time. Herod tried to incite Ben Buta to simply curse the king. But Ben Buta refused to do so, citing Ecclesiastes 10:20. Then the temporarily and rarely anonymous Herod tried to goad Ben Buta into adjusting the requested curse against the king based on the king’s status as a rich person or as a leader, and used other arguments, but Ben Buta refused to do so, citing other Biblical passages. Finally, Herod revealed, “I am he. Had I known that the sages were so cautious (in avoiding cursing the king, and, by implication, by being so admirably loyal to him), I would not have killed them. Now what is [the] remedy (to repent)?” Ben Buta gave the classic ultimate and most eloquent response, “He who extinguished the light of the world by killing the Torah sages, as it is written ‘For the mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah is light’ (Proverbs 6:23) should go and occupy himself with the light of the world”—to raze the remnants of the original destroyed Beit HaMikdash and to rebuild it (Bava Batra, 4). And we know what happened next. The sages, presumably at least those who escaped or were ordained after the mass murder, exclaimed, “One who has not seen Herod’s building has never seen such a beautiful building in his life” (Bava Batra 4).

Ironically, so much good came to the world, at least architecturally, because of the acts of repentance of a “semi-Jewish” mass murderer who did so much bad to the world, especially to the Jewish world. The daf goes on to discuss an intermediate scenario, featuring Nebuchadnezzar, who claimed to be repentant and was advised by the prophet Daniel to atone by doing charitable deeds, which when done did indeed have some positive effect on his destiny.

Unfortunately, but not exactly surprisingly, the perpetrators of the outrageous acts of October 7th did not repent, to put it mildly, and it is hard to envision any situation in which they will do so. However, if they will release the hostages even for the wrong reasons, they might still improve their destiny somewhat as was the case with Nebuchadnezzar, whose motives in his “repentance” were deemed questionable, at best, by the rabbis.

A lot of other unfortunate things have been happening in this world since October 7th and continue to take place, even if not quite as egregious, especially in terms of absurd and unfounded accusations against Israel for its prosecution of its war of self-defense (as opposed to genocide or even retribution) and the antisemitism that has accompanied these accusations. Our mission, which is within the realm of possibility, remains to convince misinformed and uninformed people that they were and are wrong and to convince them to make amends. We can draw optimism from the story of Herod (who saw the light and repented) as recounted in the Talmud, and we can try to emulate Bava Ben Buta in our own ways and in our own time, by exercising self-restraint, scrupulously avoiding expressing unnecessary slander or curses (that can backfire) and, in general, in adhering to the Torah sedulously and diligently in such a way as to shine light where there is darkness.

We all hope and pray that all the people in the world will extinguish the darkness and will distinguish—or will be enlightened to distinguish—between right and wrong, and will repent and make amends if they discover or will be convinced that they were wrong.

The writer continues to urge everyone to Google and circulate the writings of John Spencer and others demonstrating most effectively, convincingly, and authoritatively that Israel’s approach to the war in Gaza is the opposite of genocide, rather, a guide worthy of pride.

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